by Jeff Hage
APG of East Central Minnesota
Victims of sexual assault now have a better chance at justice thanks in part to a new law.
Nestled in the state Legislature’s recently approved budget bill is more than $4 million earmarked for preserving rape kits.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, and Rep. Kelly Moller, D-Shoreview, has been signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz. The law sets in writing that all rape kits from cases reported to police must be tested and permanently preserved. In cases not reported to police, rape kits must be preserved for 30 months so evidence exists if a sexual assault victim choses to pursue charges at a later date.
Under the new law, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension will also create an online database that will allow victims to track the status of their sexual assault kit.
No victim should ever be left wondering if their kit will be tested, and no perpetrator should ever get away with rape because law enforcement agencies have left an unrestricted kit untested, O’Neill said.
O’Neill, the District 29B state representative, said the inability to protect the rights of sexual assault victims was first uncovered in a 2015 Legislative audit.
The audit, O’Neill said, revealed that more than 3,500 rape kits had gone untested in Minnesota.
O’Neill said the untested kits were absolutely unacceptable and spent the next legislative bienniums working with lawmakers to right the wrong.
An investigation found that hospitals were overwhelmed with rape kits and many law enforcement agencies were not picking up the evidence.
“Hospitals were running out of space and some of the evidence was being destroyed,” O’Neill said.
At the time that the 2015 Legislative audit was conducted, the BCA had the ability to test about 1,000 kits per year, O’Neill said. The lawmaker noted that it would take more than three years to clear the backlog at the state level.
The state applied for a federal grant to help clear that backlog.
And that’s when another benefit of the testing program was identified. Through the use of the DNA testing, investigators began connecting sexual assault suspects to other crimes. Serial rapists were being identified, as were suspects in other assaults, acts of violence, and even burglaries and robberies.
In addition, rapists using date rape drugs is incredibly common, but prosecution in those cases is incredibly rare.
The new law can be a game-changer in the prosecution of those cases, O’Neill suggested.
O’Neill says that in society, there is a propensity to blame the victim when something like a sexual assault occurs.
“They drank too much. They dressed provocatively. They wanted it,” O’Neill said, as examples of victim blaming.
But now, due to the work of O’Neill and her fellow lawmakers, there is a new tool in the toolkit to identify the alleged offender as the guilty party when it comes to sexual assaults.
With the appropriation from the state Legislature, the BCA will be hiring staff and scientists to process evidence, creating the database of investigation results, and purchasing equipment for DNA analysis.
The bill is a step toward justice for the survivors of sexual assault in this state, O’Neill said.